We present a mass spectrometric approach to monitor and characterize the intermediates of graphene nanoribbon (GNR) formation by chemical vapor deposition (CVD) on top of Au(111) surfaces. Information regarding the repeating units, lengths, and termini can be obtained directly from the surface sample by a modified matrix assisted laser desorption/ionization (MALDI) method. The mass spectrometric results reveal ample oxidative side reactions under CVD conditions which can, however, be diminished drastically by introduction of protective H2 gas at ambient pressure. Simultaneously, addition of hydrogen extends the lengths of the oligophenylenes and thus the final GNRs. Moreover, the prematurely formed cyclodehydrogenation products during the oligomer growth can be assigned by the mass spectrometric method. The obtained mechanistic insights provide valuable information for optimizing and upscaling the bottom-up fabrication of GNRs. Given the important role of GNRs as semiconductors, the mass spectrometric characterization provides a readily available tool to improve and characterize their structural perfection.